Yuge Zhou: A search for human connection

TWS –Hi Yuge, can you please tell us something about yourself that you’d like our readers to know about you?

YZ –I was born in Beijing, China, and I moved to the United States about 15 years ago, initially to go to Syracuse University and get a Masters Degree in Technology. I was interested in experiencing a very different culture as a counterweight to my Chinese heritage. When I was in Syracuse, upon finishing my degree, I randomly picked up a camera and started filming and photographing different scenes and people’s activities. I got pretty interested in doing black-and-white street photography at that time and eventually started to build a portfolio and decided I wanted to be an artist. I then came to Chicago to get another degree, a Master of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. That’s where everything started. Pursuing an art degree solidified my interest in art and I was able to fuse artistic concepts with the logic associated with technological innovation. Since I graduated in 2015, I’ve been a practicing artist based in Chicago. I create video and large-scale installations about connections, isolation, and longing in urban and natural environments.

TWS –Your art studies started with drawing and traditional landscape painting, but then shifted to Computer Science and Fine Arts. How do you feel these different fields informed your practice?

YZ –While my early training focused on traditional landscape painting, I subsequently studied technology and computers because my family felt that it was a more pragmatic direction. Instead of pulling me away from art, it eventually became an unusual gateway to propel me into a more contemporary realm of art making. I would say the key elements that I learned from computer science concerned logic, design, and structure. Sometimes these elements are subtle in my work. For example, in Soft Plots, a video portraying a quilt-like patchwork of volleyball and Frisbee players appearing and disappearing in sand. The actions seem random but there is an underlying structure involving timing and location. In a more obvious example, many of my installations use reliefs with projected images precisely-mapped onto panels. I enjoy pairing precision from computer engineering and conceptual thinking from artistic practices to create both novelty and order.

TWS –What led you to focus your work on video art? Why are moving images more appropriate than photography or other media to address the issues your work focuses on?

YZ –Moving to the US, suddenly being unfamiliar with the culture and feeling disconnected in the public spaces, made me even more sensitive to my surroundings. At that time, I was observing a lot, which became a motivation for me to take photography classes at a community college. I was really inspired by works of Walker Evans or Henri Cartier-Bresson, and I wanted to document daily rituals embedded in micro-narratives and architectural or natural elements. First, it was about capturing a decisive moment. It was in grad school, I slowly moved towards video art because I also wanted to explore the concept of time in relation to space.

Moon Drawings, Winter, Feb 2022

TWS –Your work has some sort of anthropological approach: documenting public spaces, watching everyday rituals, dissecting them and then creating something new from them. How did you become interested in these aspects of urban life, and how did they become a central part of your work? 

YZ –I like the word ‘anthropological’, reminding me of field study. Although I’ve never considered my approach to work from a scientific perspective. For me, it is just observation – the basic human attribute – observing the landscape to understand it. I’m always experiencing new places through my own lens. So how I read people and my way of interpreting them in my work say as much about me as the people I encounter. 

Love Letters at Art on theMART (excerpt)

TWS –Isolation and human disconnection are themes that surface in many of your pieces. Can you tell us about your ideas about these issues?

YZ –I grew up in China, which was kind of a conservative upbringing. Then I moved to the United States, when I was in my early 20s. Because of my bicultural background, I feel that, at times, I am too Chinese to be American and too American to be Chinese. I also find myself longing for home and realizing that both countries are my home. I will always exist in these two cultures as both an outsider and an insider. This in-between stage makes me more sensitive to boundaries and bonds in people’s behaviors and environments, and inspires me to explore the themes of connection, longing, and isolation.

Ultimately, I believe we humans all inhabit each other’s stories, we all experience peace and sadness and joy and fear in fundamentally similar ways. Culture reflects certain ways of being, but we all share core humanity and long for connection.

TWS –You were born and raised in Beijing, but have lived in Chicago for more than a decade. What’s the idea of home for you? How do you think moving away from your culture and starting your life in a new and very different place has influenced your artistic practice?

YZ –A sense of belonging. What is interesting after all these years is that I feel like the in-between I mentioned previously, the gray area, is actually what is most interesting for me. Now I’m at a place where I’m happy with that. I’m willing to explore this in-between state in my work rather than trying to find one or the other. 

TWS –I can see a careful balance between precision and randomness in your work. The grids bring order to many of your collaged videos, but inside those grids action takes place naturally, appearing arbitrary. How does precision and randomness fit into your process?

YZ –I think the randomness has something to do with the unpredictable, incomplete fragmented narratives that we encounter everyday. In a metropolis, this is recognized as an integral aspect. Everyone has their own story, I am interested in capturing that instant when there is an intersection of stories and lives. I embrace randomness because it creates meaningful coincidences, relationships and patterns, all with an unexpected sense of mystery, anxiety, joy or fear. I add emphasis and introspection to this through the precision of the compositional techniques that I employ. 

Moon Drawings, Winter, Feb, 2020 (excerpt)
Moon Drawings, Summer, July 2021

TWS –How do you feel that your video pieces work in the era of social media? How is your relationship with social media in general?

YZ –Sometimes I feel that the way social media creates communities – everybody is doing their own thing but sharing the same grid-like space, is like my video Green Play. I do think video/time-based art has a particular agility when it comes to online experiences and can be more easily adopted and distributed for social media. So it is relevant for digital artists to examine how they can showcase their work more effectively online.

TWS –Please tell us about your role as curator of 150 Media Stream? How has your perception of digital art changed since you started curating this amazing space?

YZ –The program I set up for the 150 Media Stream features artists with a wide range of backgrounds, from big, international artists all the way down to high school art students. This range is very important to the mission of 150 Media Stream. It is a democratic space – anyone has an opportunity to be featured on the installation, from some super star artists to students who make art for their first time but are very passionate about it. 

One thing I noticed and appreciated is the incredible energy and curiosity people have for digital art, not just from artists who I work with but also the public and the tenants who encounter the 150 Media Stream in their daily life. This curatorial position puts me in touch with communities that have very different views about art making – from developers, contractors and architects to financiers and lawyers and I enjoy interacting with them.  

TWS –How do you feel your work is related to collage as a medium?

YZ –My aesthetics is influenced by both cubism and traditional Chinese scroll paintings which illustrate a compressed narrative, multiple events from different times and perspectives happening simultaneously.

Love Letters (summer, excerpt)

TWS –What’s your own definition of collage?

YZ –Collapse of activities, spaces and moments

Soft Plots
Pale Patrol

Find more about Yuge’s work on her website or Instagram